Familiar foreigns.

Familiarity can be shocking. Sounds strange, and admittedly it’s not always true – familiarity is obviously often a relief, a comfort. The dependable idea is that familiarity is a rare thing, an oasis, a refuge in a mealstrom of the strange and new. But sometimes there’s an inversion that goes on when you see something from your homeplace ripped from its context. Something well-known but not necessarily loved, something at once everyday but undeserving of contemplation, thrust from its usual habitat and put on a wierd pedestal of dissonance. Dissonant to who? To me of course – to other people it’s just another thing, an artefact of the everyday, regardless of origin or cultural context. The thought that it’s essentially a foreign thing may not be significant – after all, this is a place where technically all trappings of modern life have been imported or imposed within the last century or so. Are objects foreign when just about everything IS foreign?

Clothing for instance. The bulk of clothes worn over here are second-hand, and most of them get shipped over from Australia. North Queensland Cowboys and other rugby league paraphernalia are common. Tacky souvenier garments, many depicting the Aussie flag, are also frequently spotted. One of the young guards at the compound wears a red Liquorland shirt – there’s a former employee’s name stitched on it, I think it says ‘Michael’, but the guard’s name is Paul. He seemed pleased when I explained Liquorland was a ‘stoa blong SP na wiski’. Another guard wears an Electrical Trades Union shirt. A motley of fashion observed at one PMV stop alone last week included a shirt commemorating the Ipswich City Council Nevil Bonner Golf Day, a schoolgirl’s bag asserting that Port Stephens Council was “Always One Step Ahead”, and a guy with a Belmore Hercules Soccer Club 1971 top. The other day in Tabari Place (ie Boroko Market or Boroko Square as I have been erroneously calling it) I spotted a wiry old woman squatting in the dirt at the market, her hair unkempt and her skin weathered by merely living, wearing a black t-shirt bearing a bold slogan in large print: MODELS SUCK. 

Seeing people who are familiar is just as wierd. By ‘people who are familiar’ I simply mean white people who I assume are Australian. Unless they have been introduced (and often even if they have) the question ‘what the hell is your story?’ always jumps to the foremost parts of your thoughts. White people stand out, even in expat havens like Gordons Foodworld and Ela Beach Markets, and the notion that they are intruders of some kind is prevalent in my assessments – despite my own newness here, and despite my own obvious imported self. The thought of seeing a white person in Australia registers no second thought or questioning, even though they all without exception have an ancestry of immigrants and invaders. Over here the sight of a whitey piques curiosity, immediate judgement, and often suspicion. Kit is often bemused and confounded by the sight of AusAid advisers and staff wearing perfectly ironed long-sleeve public servant shirts – how can they be so resolutely the same over here? Yet behaviours of expats is often not the same, despite appearances. The familiarity of whiteness jostles with the hilltop compound living, the ubiquitous cars for transport, the enclaves of shopping and entertainment and socialising that set the expats apart. People who in a sense belong to a similar place as you nonetheless lead lives that would never be entertained back home. Are you elite, or just shitscared?

Dust, marsupials, cassowaries, scrappy vegetation, tropical greens, gleaming waters. Sometimes the landscape around here makes me think that this is just a part of North Queensland gone wierd. It’s as if the very dirt here is the same. Maybe a geologist would affirm or deny that. The senses can be hoodwinked by the landscape around here, for it affirms the fact that the northernmost tip of home is so tantalisingly close, that the land masses were once joined an eon ago – the sense arises that something can’t be that different if it is that close. But there is water between us, there are passports to stamp, letters go in Air Mail envelopes. Even the ABC radio reminds you that you’re elsewhere while dangling morsels of familiarity before you – an hour of test cricket followed by Pacific current affairs broadcast nonetheless from Melbourne, or Radio National news preceded by locally broadcast news read in Tok Pisin (“Prime Minister bilong Australia i tok olsem i gat planti bigpela wari blong world financial crisis”). Yes, North Queensland all askew – then again, who is to say that North Queensland isn’t the place that warps the original intent? I have also felt like an alien there.


1 Response to “Familiar foreigns.”

  1. 1 Peter Donelly November 4, 2008 at 9:16 pm

    Just wait until you go home and are served by a “white” shop asistant! – isn’t that a localised job 🙂

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